Monday, 25 July 2011

Sunday, Actually!

We now have a day guard to complement the night guard. At first I queried whether we actually needed a day guard but was told that one would start on Sunday - the guard's name also being Sunday, I said what a good day for him to be starting a new job, which caused great mirth for about five minutes - surely he must have heard that one before! Anway, apparently a lot of burgalries occur when people are out at church - ie the whole of Sabo-Oke except me -does that make me a suspect, i wonder! So much for fearing the wrath of the Lord! Still, with a guard called Sunday, the omens are good!
To avoid further hearing loss from the powerful praise crowd - sorry, choir - we went to the Kwara hotel to meet up with some friends, returning a couple of beers later - just in case we had been re-burgled by someone on their way home from church - which is a practical impossibility as church services last several hours and anyone caught sneaking out would probably be damned to eternity.
We hadn't been broken into, but the smell of burning rubber pervaded the flat which even the ceiling fans seemed unable to shift. I instinctively checked the cooker, the electricity stabiliser thingy; checked that the fans were not overheating  (unlikely given the frequency of power cuts recently), checked that no one was trying to get in via our steel back door with an oxy-cetalyne torch, checked that Tobi bakery next door was not going up in flames, checked that the guards were not smoking something dubious and finally concluded that it was nothing to do with us - could have been the final phases of a rubber tyre burning ceremony that occurs every now and then up the road at the car doctor's compound. Why they burn tyres is a mystery - they could be using them to build an eco-friendly 'earth-house' or even a soundproof church! 

Monday, 18 July 2011

Beneath a Cloud

I sit and wait for the cloud to shift;
The ceiling fan passes comment,
Scraping around for things to say -
Not sympathy
But a regular clucking
Stirring up hot air
Nagging the open door into creaking disapproval
That beyond its portal
There is too much lying undone.
So in gathering gloom
I sit and wait to be consumed by the dark sweat of night
For the cloud to shift
But expecting nothing beyond
A vague miasma of hope,

and yet  ...... 

Home Alone

Caroline is in Abuja on business - and shopping! I have returned to our shack in Sabo-Oke after a couple of weeks in the guest house in the GRA to help overcome recent problems. No further evidence of criminal activity, though there seems to have been an explosion in the cockroach population during our absence - or else they have all come round to our house to die! I haven't had to use the spray - maybe its my 'Men Only' deodorant : not so much the 'Lynx effect' as the 'stinks effect'!
There has also been a lot of activity from the termite population living in the brickwork. Two of our bedroom walls (we have four) have erupted  into a spattering of burst pustules, grey against the blue emulsion - they don't seem to like the blue emulsion, which I can understand, being blue, but there's no need to spit it out into little heaps on our carpet!  You never catch any of the little beggars doing it though - perhaps the cockroaches have eaten them - so God did have a purpose for creating a cockroach!
It must be wonderfully  weird to actually live within your own favourite food store. For me it would be like living inside a strawberry, or within a giant Crunchie, or inside a block of chicken foo yung, or slab of Cheshire cheese - or Cheddar, I'm not fussy; or in a logpile of chips beside a lake of ketchup, or inside a stack of sour cream and chive Pringles (it has to be sour cream and chive), or even in a Big Mac (yes, I admit it - I quite like them) with relish - one of my five-a-day.

I need to get home quick!

Not Sunday

The virtual choir was in good voice last night - I know cause I heard most of the performance. It only stopped in the pre-dawn for the voice of  Islam.
In my semi-conscious state I remember thinking how nice the hymns were. Consequently, today, Saturday, feels like Sunday - a day of rest - or possibly for catching up on lost sleep. Most of Sabo-Oke must be feeling likewise as it is very quiet in the 'hood'. I saw our neighbour, Uzo, and asked her if she was on her way to church.
'No!' she replied, looking at me oddly, 'It's only Saturday!'
So it is! No avoiding the shopping then!
I wandered down the road to the metal shack on the corner where Anna, Elizabeth and little Bridget seem to spend most of their lives. Their mother was filling empty plastic water bottles with motor oil and arranging them on her roadside stall. Anna was copying some letters into an exercise book, sprawled across a rough bench. The heat, the fumes and the traffic noise didn't seem to bother her; flies were swarming round and landing on her page in order to get a closer look. Anna whisked them away and continued with her letters. Where will this family be in 10, 20 years time, I wondered. I watched the baby sitting bare-bummed in the grimy, oily sand, sifting it through her tiny fingers and staring up at me wide-eyed.
They all stopped to greet me - courteous as ever. Mum started humming a hymn as I left - even though it wasn't Sunday.
I hope God is looking after these good people and has better in store for their future.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Caught in the Rain

The end of the academic year is approaching but for the majority of teachers and pupils this is not a time for relaxation and vacation I asked the head teacher if they would be 'travelling' over the vacation period.
'Only if I must!' was her reply.
Many will continue to work - if not in the home, then in a family business, especially shops.
many of the children will replace sitting in benches with selling in the markets or hawking goods around the streets, or child-minding. As I have previously remarked, children are not children for long in Nigeria.

As the day for our departure to the UK closes in, I am reminded continually how fortunate I have been and still am to have been brought up in the UK, to have received a good education, to have been in continuous well-paid employment for most of my career, to have brought up a fine, caring family, to have had some great life experiences and to be doing now what I had always wanted to do, facing challenges in an LEDC. I am also fortunate in being able to call time on it if the need should arise. For most Nigerian children and their parents there is no opt out clause and they will not have the opportunites and life chances that I have had.
Every day, in schools  and out, I meet children - great kids - smiling, hand-shaking, greeting, respectful, heading off to class, and I know what most will experience on any day - the same as the day before and the day before that ; the same as tomorrow, next term and next year. I suppose that is why I am here - to help bring a few changes about - but I can do so little.
 The rain is pouring down now on the metal roof of the house, streaming off the roof in ribbons which will soon start collecting in poools below, coalescing and flooding the compound and the street beyond. I will remain in relative comfort and dry, a roof and solid walls to protect me from the elements. I will look out with fascination at what I see, and know that should the water level continue to rise, a phone call or two will have me out of here, someone will 'beam me up', while the rain carries on and darkness closes in. But I know that out there there are many thousands who will be damp tonight and in the dark, they will be tired and hungry - and there will be nothing they can do about it. And if the rain stops now, it will simply return tomorrow.


Matthew is a teacher - or will be one day - an excellent, caring, imaginative, professionally minded teacher. At the moment he is assigned by the Nigerian Youth Service Corps to volunteering in a secondary school where my job is to support him and others in the  classroom and through putting on workshop/training sessions.
He is one of the few teachers I have witnessed out here who can control a class - a large class of teenagers, through the power of his own personality and his sense of humour. He is respectful of his pupils, interested in them and understanding of their problems - and the pupils respect him for being so.
For some time I have been trying to arrange for Matthew to do some training as a teacher  in the UK - at my former school in Liverpool. They ahve offered to take him in for a few weeks anf give him a placement in the English department so he can see and experience best practice in an excellent school. He will return to Nigeria energised and ful of endeavour. He will face the same frustrations but will be better equipped to initiate alternative strategies for not just coping, but for instigating change. He will have an influence on the main body of the teaching staff and the other schools in their cluster. He will change attitudes and enthse new volunteers and those doing their teaching practice; in effect Matthew will be spreading the VSO gospel of sustainability, sharing lives and skills.
The current economic climate in the UK has led to an evaporation of the funding for this sort of venture and I so much want this to happen for Matthew.
If anybody has or knows of any contacts inside or outside Nigeria who may be willing to help or sponsor Matthew's visit , please let me know. We are looking at a ballpark figure of about 5,000 pounds for a two month stay, hopefully starting in September.
Here's hoping and thank you!

Flagging up an Issue

I have been pondering the Nigerian flag, flapping forlornly over the school compound in a light breeze, as if it can't be bothered displaying its pride today.
It is a green flag, for those unfamiliar with it, with a thick white vertical bar down the middle. Some have a badge positioned in the centre but this one doesn't - probably been pinched!
So a random thought was that this flag lacks a bit of pzazz, in my opinion. I know the colour and design of all flags is loaded with meaning and significance and symbolism, inducing intense feelings of pride, much saluting, chest-beating, and an upwelling of emotion at even a distant glimpse of it flying high above a government building or military installation; I understand all that but surely there is room for a bit of artistic style too!

I got my world map with the national flags surrounding it and considered the design of other flags.
Nigeria's flag is not the worst - in fact if there was a competition or award for the most boring flag, there would be quite a large number of possible candidates. No disrespect at all to any national of whatever country, but its time a few of you consulted your style gurus - or got your kids to redesign one.

So here is my TopTen (or so) of the most boring flags on the planet :
In tenth place comes Latvia. Being a relatively new nation in the post-Communist era, can you imagine the conversation: 'We need a new flag, comrades - how about brown with a thin white stripe?' 'Yeah! Yeehah! Way to go! 'Awesome!' (they watch too much American TV in Latvia).
Ninth place goes to Liechtenstein - sorry fellas, I know there aren't many of you and you are probably working hard all day making loadsamoney, but half blue and half red - come on, this is like combining a Red with a Toffee - and that little yellow badge fools nobody.
Number 8: Cyprus. If it were not for the yellow map of Cyprus on it to show you whose flag it is, it would just be a white sheet. And two little leaves? - at least Lebanon has a whole tree!
In 7th place comes San Marino. Any nation which uses the colours of Birmingham City FC for its inspiration needs help!
At 6th I would put jointly, Bahrain and Qatar who have clearly dreamed their flags up together unless they both ran out of cloth in the principal colour and have hand sewn a piecs of white onto it to make it reach as far as the flag pole. Where is the symbol of your wealth and power - an oil droplet or a camel or something?
Fifth place is awarded to Japan. If it wasn't for that big red dot, they wouldn't have had to bother at all - surely they didn't have to resort to a giant Strepsil for inspiration!
We have a tie for fourth place because Indonesia, Poland and Monaco have clearly copied each other. Come on, own up,  guys - who copied who? Poland clearly copied - probably from turning round and copying one of the others cause they have got it upside down. Monaco and Poland were obviously sitting next to each other - and all three lack a bit of imagination, I think.
So in first place - the winner of the  most boring flag on the planet contest , for sheer lack of creativity and only a snooker table for inspiration - or the outside lawn, I would nominate .... Libya. As a simple green rectangle, it isn't even worth cutting and pasting a picture of it.

If you want to share good practice, take a look at some of the others  to see what they have come up with - South Africa, Swaziland, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Kiribati, Malaysia, to name but a few.
I reckon I may have upset about 500 million people now - but it's not my fault - I didn't design them! With a year to go before the next Olympics when much flag-waving will be in evidence, there is yet time for a re-think!
For sheer novelty, I think a special mention should go to Nepal for its flag shaped like half a Christmas tree with two baubles on it and red - like Santa- for a Buddhist nation that is a really generous gesture towards Christianity if ever there was one.
Needless to say, the views expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of VSO - but they are mine!
So, what about nominating your Top Ten of the best. I know what mine would be - for colour combination, simplicity yet elegance of design, not to mention its historical connotations, how can you beat our own Union Flag1 (The national anthem, however is another matter entirely!)

A Short Back and Sides

My re-match with the barber of Sabo-Oke went quite well. He welcomed me into his parlour where his friends were engrossed in a game of draughts on what looked like a plain board! They all fell about laughing when I greeted them in Yoruba and then reimmersed themselves in their game. meanwhile, the barber had fired up his generator, fixed (sort of) a blade to the apparatus, heated it with a naked flame to sterilize it, sparyaed water on it from a washing up liquid bottle to cool it down, wiped it with a rag to dry it and then set to work - or rather stood there as if to say 'What do I do now?' He thoughtfully switched on the small portable TV that lived on a high shelf and which I could have watched - if I had been able to keep my glasses on and if i could have read subtitles backwards in the salon's mirror.
'Just like the other day?' he asked, referring to the day I last visited his salon back in November.
'More off this time' i replied, remembering the paltry amount he took off  with quivering hand on that last occasion. This time he was in confident mood - so much so that when the draughts game got a bit heated with much shouting and gesticulating, he turned round to adjudicate without once interrupting the flowing motion of his shaving hand. The end result was better than i had expected -neat, even and carried out with the softest touch - unlike last time when i half expected to see an ear land on the floor alongside the whisps of hair he had removed. He was more than happy with the amount I paid him - meaning i over paid him, Yoruba'd my good byes, reigniting their laughter and left. 
I emerged into the mid-morning heat like a western gunslinger emerging from a saloon bar, lighter in the wallet, but somewhat refreshed and relieved that i had not had to get embroiled in a duel ; but rather than saddling up and moseying on out of town, I strode off with my newly shaved head glinting in the sun, inducing migraine in passers by, dazzling oncoming traffic and compelling startled goats to flee for the hills of rubbish lining the road.
Five hours later and my hair has gone completely spiky - a reaction to the heat , to the glare of the sun, or to last nights rice and tomato dinner. Any resemblance between me and a rather pale-looking hedgehog is purely coincidental - and hopefully temporary!

The Final Exit of Evil Genius

The title of this blog comes from a tiny poster I saw on a classroom wall which I am intrigued by -but not a lot! It is issued by the Sacked Teachers Forum and goes like this - word for word:

A person dancing with rag overnight should remember that the dawn is under way tomorrow.
The game is over. praise be to God the Grand desugner, Grandmaster of the world.
Congratulations to all of us as we celebrate our victory, success and regain our freedom.
Allah, master of all Master designers will stop him of all his evil and devilish ways.

Any ideas?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A 9/10 day!

This week I met with two guys - national volunteers - who really restored my faith in what I am doing here - and heaven knows, my faith needs restoring at the moment!
Many times I havehad conversations with local people - educated, qualified, experienced people who despair of their nation - the rampant and blatant corruption at all levels, the incompetence, the lies, the arrogance, the complete dereliction of empathy or sense of duty  or public service. Oftentimes I have felt like responding :"OK! I may as well go home then!"
"Please!", they say. "Mr Lea, let me follow you to your place!" Then they break out into huge grins and look at me half hoping I will take them seriously and smuggle them out somehow.
Matthew and Richard are different. They are both 'Corper +' volunteers, coming to the end of a second year of volunteering to serve in a state school as a pre-teacher. They have just told me they intend to apply for an extension to their service, optimistic that they will be taken on as permanent teachers eventually.
They have no illusions about the mess their country is in, and seemingly incapable of doing anything about it, but they are in it for the long haul and feel that their country needs them - it sure does!
Matthew and Richard have been constant attenders at the dozen or so workshop/training sessions that I have run so far in their schools, and are among the few  who seem to want to implement any of the new methodologies and systems to which they have been introduced.
Matthew soaks up everything from the training and within days - hours, sometimes - is trying to incorporate it into his practice. Likewise Richard - fully absorbed in our discussions and ready to question or confirm his understanding. Richard runs after-school clubs including a Drama club and an adult literacy class which he takes out into the community. It has he who was largely resonsible for organising the environmental clean-up operation in Offa's market area a few months back at considerable personal expense.
Both these guys have the potential to become fantastic teachers and future mentors of new recruits to the profession or new national volunteers; they are already excellent role models and I am delighted with the decision they have made  to stay and fight for a better deal in schools for the kids they teach. They demonstarte regularly the tolerance, charisma, patience, respect and openness that seems in short supply here, once you cross the school threshold. I just hope their colleagues realise what they have got  in their midst and watch, listen and learn.
This blog is for them!
Matthew told me as a by-the way remark that he was impressed by the lesson plan format I showed him last week. He showed it in turn to a student on teaching practice who has adopted it and so impressed his tutor in using it that he has been awarded a 'pass' for lesson organisation and the plan is now being adopted by the college of education as part of their instructional material. I knew I should have copyrighted (copywritten?) it!
So, all in all I think 9/10 for today - not 10/10 - I still had to do some shopping, which inevitably exposes me to my failings in the haggling skills department. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks - which is certainly true if the old dog really can't be arsed!

Thank God for the Monkey!

As I boarded the bus to return to Ilorin I noticed an infant sitting next to her mother on the back seat. She was looking at me with a mixture of amazement and  curiosity but mostly fear - the daughter, that is, not the mother! I sat on the row in front awaiting the next scene in the unfolding drama which will be when she starts screaming - the daughter, not the mother! Already she was clinging on and a comforting arm was placed round her - the mother's, not the daughter's! When I rashly turned ruond and said "Ekaasan!" as I do regularly on buses, those gorgeous brown eyes grew wider and a bit wilder - the daughter's, that is, not the mother - though possibly both - or rather, all four!
Anyway, I did what I often do in such circumstances to deflect a possible shrieking episode that might last the entire journey unless I am asked to leave the vehicle, I took a monkey bean-bag out of my rucksack and started playing with it, making it wave and nod to the little girl, peeping from behind the seat - the monkey , that is. I thought for a moment I had made a grave error of judgement as she shrieked loud enough to burst the already severely cracked windscreen. The driver was not amused - possibly woken from his slumbers or maybe having had his concentration diverted from the pot-holes, ruts,stray goats and police convoys that could materialise at any moment. Then I realised she was shrieking  with laughter as she bounced up and down in her seat and watched the antics of the monkey from the safety of her mother's embrace. Her laughter was infectious and soon the whole bus was grinning and laughing with her. It made for a fun trip back.
I wonder if monkey would have a similar effect on the shop women of Yoruba Road who only crack a smile once you have coughed up a greater than expected sum for a kilo of beans or a half empty pot of custard powder; or the little boy who has been terrified of me for months - ever since I entered his mother's shop and, to the amusement of the rest of the family, told her son I had come in to buy him!

Big day tomorrow - I'm paying a return visit to the barber of sabo-Oke  - reckless or what! So if this is my last blog, you'll know why!!  
'O Daabo!'  

Monday, 4 July 2011

Sobi Hill

Sobi Hill is a smooth, steep-sided, dome-shaped outcrop, the highest of a group of such hills that rise about 200 metres above the gently undulating savanna to the north of Ilorin. It was Sunday morning and we were offered a lift there by Sue and her family.
The climb to the top was not particularly difficult, at least not for us 'oyibo' - we kept our shoes on, but local people climb to the summit of this revered site barefoot, if not on their knees, many of them in their Sunday best.
By  the time we started our ascent the sun had been on the bare rock for at least three hours and would certainly have caused us blistered feet if we had attempted to follow local custom. We followed the course of the white painted line which acted as a guide to the safest route up.
On the way we passed individuals and small groups praying, discussing devoutly, chanting and singing as they sat in the sparse shade or made their way to the top. At one point we veered away from the white line - to the consternation of a group of women who were most anxious to guide us back to the right path; perhaps we had commited a 'faux pas' or maybe they were just concerned for our safety. There were several other people at the top when we arrived on its flat bare dome. Circles of boulders enclosed emblems and mottoes of religious significance. There was a simple metal cross about three metres high set in concrete and a lone gatepost, with no obvious reason why a gateway would have ever been necessary up here as there were no walls, fences or hedges of any sort. There was also a derelict building that may once have been linked to a communications tower, the concrete base of which was still visible.
This was a good place for quiet reflection and contemplation. An African woman was singing and chanting whilst shaking a large gourd-shaped thing that made the sound of a rain-maker. Her lone voice in the otherwise still air of midday was almost bewitching as I gazed out southwards across the sprawling iron roofs of Ilorin and north over fields of cassava and yam starting to appear in the rich red earth, and on, across a rolling green landscape of small-holdings that has come alive since the start of the rainy season.
I think for the first time since our arrival in Nigeria I honestly felt 'this is Africa', which may seem ridiculous as we are in our ninth month, but nearly all that time I have been city-bound. Ilorin does nothing for me and Abuja is 'Anywhere-land'. I need to feel the roots of the landscape, its geology and its basement rock, its rivers and vegetation, its backdrop of ordinary life, before I can feel that I have 'connected'.
I remember similar feelings on our arrival in the Northern Territory of Australia in 2000 - seeing an aboriginal family running out of a golden red dawn right across our path was something timeless, amazing, unforgettable- I could be nowhere else on Earth. In Japan it was rumbling slowly upwards into the heart of the Mt Koya massif, the local train winding its way around hillsides clothed in cherry, almond and peach blossom with occasional glimpses of village life and an old man practising tai-chi  in the early morning dew; in the Dordogne it was waking one sunny morning to the sound of a cockerel and a chuch bell summoning people from nearby farms and vineyards to Mass; and in Egypt, it was not Cairo, and not so much the Pyramids as the camels sitting beneath them, sheltering their masters from the sandstorm that whirled around us. For me such moments have a 'kick-in'effect and help me immerse myself in the surroundings and the experience. A 'natural base' allows other layers to grow on top like strata - architecture, people, costumes, customs, language etc.
But for now, its Sobi Hill which is helping to put behind me events of the recent past and remember and appreciate that there is beauty in the small things around us, in the minutiae of places as well as in panoramic grandeur.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Burglary Update

It has been  two weeks since the burglary. How time flies when you’re having fun.
Last Wednesday I had to return to the police station to get a police report to enable me to file a claim for our stolen items. The same young WPC/CID officer  led us into her office, disturbing a young man  completing his own crime report who was told to go and complete it outside – it was raining hard.
They may not have petty cash for a pen and paper but there was an impressive DVD and satellite receiver awaiting installation.
I was told I would have to see her superior officer –in the office upstairs, reached  by a stairway, and was I OK with stairs? I replied that I had had a lifetime’s experience of managing stairs and had just about got the hang of them now (not a flicker!). Assuming I had been a complete incompetent in the stair-climbing skills department, there was no other way up, unless they were going to haul me up in a rope and bucket contraption.
Once I had demonstrated my complete mastery of the stairway to her satisfaction I was beckoned into an even dingier office and invited to sit on a bench polished by all the bums that must have sat and squirmed on it over many decades. Her boss decided not to see me and left. The WPC spent the next ten minutes trying to locate my file from within the heap of files on the desk.  She eventually pulled out a grubby battered manila folder that probably dated from the colonial era, if not earlier. She decided the other files ought to be stored in the desk drawer which fell apart when she removed it.  I did not rush to help her in case she cast doubt  as to my drawer assembly and insertion skills. I could have detailed my experiences over many years assembling MFI flat-pack furniture but thought better of it.
My crime report now found, I had to take it to the High Court and swear an affidavit. Whatever possessed me to think that this would be an impressive, wood-panelled, wig-wearing, shiny brass experience, m’lud!
I ran out of the rain, unsuccessfully dodging the water pouring off the Court roof and suddenly realizing that both my shoes had holes in the soles. The office of the presiding clerk was a showpiece in wrecked furnishing.  She finished her chicken and jollof rice and then asked to see my typed report to VSO. She then hand-wrote my typed statement in red biro on a creased sheet of A4 – which was free!  Her hand writing was painfully slow and to me, barely legible. I then had to pay 500 naira (about 2 pounds) for her hand-written account to be re-typed and I would have to come back for it in an hour. Two hours later we were on our way back with a typed affidavit to the police HQ to have it countersigned by the chief officer of signing things.   He wasn’t in yet (2pm) so I would have to come back in an hour – but I would need to pay 1000 naira in advance for a typed police report and photocopy. I resisted asking if I would have to supply my own photocopier. I left it three hours. He was still not in so come back tomorrow – but check the report first. When I did so I noticed all the spelling mistakes in the typed copy – copied from the hand-written version.   I thought this was going to cost me another 1000 naira because they insisted that all the errors would have to be removed and the document retyped – so come back tomorrow. All this was conducted against a backdrop of noise coming from the crackly TV and Radio Kwara, both on at the same time. Radio Kwara itself induces intense migraine after about 30 seconds of listening, but coupled with ‘African Magic’ you feel almost suicidal.
I now have my affidavit and my police report – both typed, after a fashion and 24 hours later my ear-drums have just about recovered. The amazing thing is that local people seem oblivious to the levels of noise in office environments, where the TV and/or radio is always on, no matter how important the meeting, unless you ask them to turn it off. Yet they appear to be able to carry on conversations regardless – unless they are just pretending and really nobody understands anything anyone else is saying, which would account for a lot!